What Is Sanctification?

This topic is really unpopular in the “wilder grace” and “freer grace” Renewal circles. But becoming like Christ is scriptural. Unavoidable. Necessary. And a blessing.

Growing in holiness can breed pride—holier than thou. But don’t let it. Just walk in the Spirit in quiet humility.

From the start, let’s spell out the major goal through this verse of Scripture:

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. (Rom. 8:29, NIV, emphasis added)

This one says it is a process:

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:18, NIV, emphasis added)

Now, let’s look at the basic definitions of sanctification.

1.. What do the Hebrew and Greek words teach?

As noted in other posts on sanctification and God’s holiness at this website, William Mounce says the Hebrew adjective for holy is qadosh and is used 117 times. “It describes that which is by nature sacred or that which has been admitted to the sphere of the sacred by divine rite. It describes, therefore, that which is distinct or separate from the common or profane” (p. 337).

In the New Testament, the Greek words are hagios (holy, sacred) and is used 233 times. The verb hagiazō (make holy sanctify, consecrate) is used 28 times (p. 338).

Then Mounce gives us this nugget: “The proper sphere of the holy in the NT is not priestly or ritual, but the prophetic. The sacred no longer belongs to things, places, or rites, but to manifestations of life produced by the Spirit” (p. 338). In other words, when the believer is filled with the Spirit—the Holy Spirit–he is on his way to work out this holiness day by day. It is a process.

2.. What do theologians say?

Renewal theologian J. Rodman Williams teaches that the basic connotation of holy and holiness in the Old Testament is that of separation / apartness from the common, mundane, and profane things of everyday life. This is true of God in His total otherness, also of persons and things set apart for Him and His service (vol. 1, p. 60, note 41).

God’s majesty speaks of God’s awesomeness and majesty. “At the heart of divine majesty is the white and brilliant light of His utter purity. There is in God utterly no taint of anything unclean and impure” (p. 61).

Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof says that there is an ethical aspect of holiness. “The fundamental idea of the ethical holiness of God is also that of separation from moral evil or sin. Berkhof continues: that holiness is manifested is moral law, “implanted in man’s heart, and speaking through the conscience, and more particularly in God’s special revelation,” the Bible (p. 74).

Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck tells us that sanctification or the process of making a thing or person holy in the Old Testament “is something more than merely being set apart; it is, by means of washing, anointing, sacrifice, and sprinkling of blood (etc.), to divest a thing of the character it has in common with all other things, and to impress upon it another stamp, a stamp uniquely its own, which it must bear and display everywhere (Lev. 8:15, 16:15-16; Job 1:5).” (Reformed, p. 206). In the New Testament, “God’s holiness is finally supremely manifest in Christ, in whom God gives himself to the church, which redeems and cleanses from all iniquities” (ibid.). The Holy Spirit become the purifier and sanctifier.

Bottom line: There are two spheres in God and the world he created: the sacred and profane. Wherever God moves, he makes the space sacred. He established the mobile tabernacle in the wilderness. He ordered the temple in Jerusalem. When Jesus “moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, Message translation), he made the places where he ministered holy. The same is true for us. Through Christ, we make our spaces sacred. We must not be polluted by the world, the flesh (our sin nature) and the devil.

3.. Can you explain sanctification into smaller parts?

Renewal theologian J. Rodman Williams breaks it down into three parts (vol. 2, pp. 83-86).

First, holiness or the sanctified life means separateness or apartness.

In the OT, Israel was called to be a separate and holy people. Deut. 7:6 says that Israel were a people holy to the LORD God; the LORD has chosen them out of all the nations of the world. The people of the New Covenant are also a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people (1 Pet. 2:9). We are a holy or separate people. But this holiness does not withdraw us from the world, but encourages us to reach out to unbelievers. We can do this if we understand we are holy and evangelistic, holy while we evangelize, not holier-than-thou, but a streamlined life without encumbrances.

Second, holiness or sanctification (the process or act of making you holy) includes purity and cleanness.

In Exod. 19:10-11, before the LORD descended on Mt. Sinai, the people had to wash their garments, which was an outward sign of ritual purity. On the Day of Atonement, the people were to be cleansed from all their sins, indicating an interior cleansing (Lev. 16:30). In the New Covenant, Jesus used the imagery of washing the inside and outside of the cup and plate, and it is not what goes into a man that defiles him (unclean foods), but what comes out of him—his thoughts and words, so be sure the heart is clean (Mark 7:18-19). Paul teaches us that Christ gave himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds (Tit. 2:14). And he writes that we should cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, perfecting holiness in reverential awe of God (2 Cor. 7:1).

This notion of “perfecting” brings us to the next aspect.

Third, holiness refers to moral “perfection.”

In the OT God was perfect (2 Sam. 22:31). The animal to be sacrificed had to be perfect or without defect (Lev. 22:21). But in the New Covenant, the inside life has to be “perfect” (Matt. 5:48).

Please note, though. 1 Cor. 1:30 says that “From him [God] we are in Christ Jesus, who has become wisdom to us from God, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” He already is our sanctification or holiness. It’s a done deal. However, perfection does not mean morally sinless, but complete maturity and growth towards the goal of being like Christ. We are positionally or declaratively sanctified, but not actually sinlessly perfect in our experience. But we instantly experience sanctification because the Holy Spirit lives in us.

Consider this truth from 1 Cor. 1:30. Christ has become our wisdom, but we are not perfectly wise every moment of every day, are we? No. But we can experience wisdom day by day. Similarly, he has become our holiness or sanctification, but we are not now perfectly holy or sanctified, but we can experience it.

Think of a pure white cloth covering a tall glass of water, just above the rim. Imagine the water has some dirt in it. Positionally we are holy in Christ (the white cloth). He has put the white robe of holiness on us. Now God is presently getting the dirt out of the old water by pouring in new water through the white cloth. The water spills over, and the dirty water will eventually leave and be replaced. This process takes a lifetime of growing in Christ.

4.. What is your conclusion?

Don’t be anxious about whether you exhibit enough holiness. Let it flow out of you by the Spirit living in you.

Further, sanctification or holiness does not mean you separate yourself from the world by living in a monastery or in a closed-in Christian community. How, then, could you proclaim the gospel to the lost world? It means that as you interact with the world and its evil, you pray and allow the Spirit to maintain your life in Christ.

Dirty jokes at work? Pray and drift away from the conversation or excuse yourself naturally, without a “holy show” that makes lost sheep feel isolated. Were you once an alcoholic or drug addict, yet God set you free? Don’t go back in to that world. You might fall back in it. If God clearly calls you to go back into that old world, in order to witness to your old friends, don’t go alone. Jesus sent his disciples out two by two (Mark 6:7).

Holiness can be friendly, not “holier than thou.” It just means you do not have to absorb the world’s pollution.

Sanctification is about life in the Spirit, as good Renewalists believe.

How does this post help me grow in God?

As noted in the other posts:

Sanctification literally means the process or act (-ion) of making (fic-) holy (sanct-). It could be called by the made-up and awkward term “holy-fication.” So once God consecrates you at your salvation-conversion, it becomes a process; don’t feel bad if you stumble once in a while. Just get up and realize that your walk in holiness is a long, long process of growing in Christ.

In the New Testament, it is used in the past tense, (believers have been sanctified), present tense (believers are being sanctified), and future tense (believers will be sanctified).

Being holy in Christ means you are positionally and experientially holy, in the sense of being transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son (Col. 1:13). He positions you to be holy or sanctified by your being in him. And when he fills you with his Holy Spirit, you experience sanctification or holiness on a much deeper level, day by day.

Stated differently, your perfection is positional because his sacrifice on the cross is perfect, and now you are positioned in Christ. And so for the rest of your life you will work out what the Spirit worked in. You can experience his (not your) perfection, as you grow in him.

It works out like this (1 Cor 1:30):

Positional or declarative: Christ has become your sanctification or holiness (or perfection).

Experiential: Christ works out in you his sanctification or his holiness (or his perfection) daily.

The positional and experiential happen at the same time. If you have any perfection in you, it is Christ alone living in you through the Spirit, not you. And now he is working in you to make you more like him.

In other words,

Initial sanctification ≠ Sinless, moral perfection

There is daily progress in the process, until you die or the Lord returns. Only then will you be morally, sinlessly perfect.

Justification is different from sanctification in these ways:

Justification Sanctification
Legal standing Internal condition
Once and for all time Continuous throughout life
Entirely God’s work We cooperate with God
Perfect in this life Imperfect in this life
The same in all Christians Greater in some than in others
Source: Grudem, p. 746

As noted in the other posts, the only slight disagreement is that God declares us holy only because he transfers us from darkness to light, from the profane to the sacred; we are consecrated to him, no longer to the world. But now we work it out. Justification and sanctification are linked, but distinct. The order is really logically prior, not sequential in time, according to NT theology. That is, logically, legal declaration by God comes before we humans practice holiness and righteousness. Logically, we receive righteousness as a free gift before we can have it infused in us by the work of the Spirit. (If we believed that our holiness logically came before God’s gift of righteousness, Paul would say his theology was turned upside down and out of order.) Logically, your personal sanctification never launches God’s declaration of your right legal standing and your being born again (regeneration), or else Christianity would resemble other religions, particularly certain strands of Saul’s / Paul’s old Judaism. Just the opposite is the case. Your repentance (by grace) and your saving faith (by grace), and your new birth (by the Spirit) and God’s declared righteousness–all of this at the same time–launches your sanctification process.


Bible Basics on Sanctification and Holiness

What Is Sanctification?

How Is Sanctification Done?

Word Study on Holiness and Sanctification

Sanctification: Past, Present, Future

Sanctification: Can Christians Achieve Sinless Perfection Now?

Sanctification of the Whole Person: Spirit, Soul, and Body


Works Cited

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